Super Tuesday jolts race for Democratic presidential nomination

As of three weeks ago, the idea that Biden win 9 or 10 primaries on Super Tuesday would've seemed ridiculous. And yet here we are.
Image: Joe Biden
Joe Biden speaks at his Super Tuesday night rally in Los Angeles, Calif., on March 3, 2020.Elizabeth Frantz / Reuters
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By Steve Benen

As of last week, Joe Biden had run for president several times over several decades, but he'd never won a primary. What's more, the former vice president had recently finished fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire; he was short on money; he had no real advertising presence in any of the Super Tuesday contests; and his campaign infrastructure and organization was significantly weaker than his top-tier rivals'.

A lot can happen in a week.

As of 7 a.m. ET Wednesday, Joe Biden was projected to win nine Super Tuesday primary contests, including Texas, while several races remained still too close to call.... In total, Biden's delegate count has surged to 453 so far and [Sen. Bernie] Sanders has received 373.

Trying to find a parallel for such a reversal of fortunes is difficult. In 2004, John Kerry was an early frontrunner who faltered, but who managed to work his way back before Democratic voters started having their say. The then-Massachusetts senator won the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, at which point there was little doubt that Kerry would be the nominee.

Four years later, John McCain was a strong Republican candidate early on, who saw his support fall sharply, before he gradually climbed back into contention. The Arizonan won New Hampshire and South Carolina in 2008, at which point his comeback was effectively complete.

But Biden was in far worse shape. After his fifth-place finish in New Hampshire -- just three weeks ago -- the idea that he'd win 9 or 10 primaries on Super Tuesday, including contests in Texas and Minnesota, would've seemed ridiculous to most fair-minded observers. And yet here we are.

Matt Seyfang, an expert delegate counter who had worked for Pete Buttigieg, told Politico, in reference to Biden's unexpectedly strong showing, "I've never seen anybody mount a comeback like this -- ever."

And with that in mind, let's take stock of where things stand for each of the remaining rivals for the Democratic nomination.

For Joe Biden, the good news is he's suddenly in the lead in the overall delegate count; he has all the momentum; money is poised to pour in; and a variety of party leaders are rallying behind him. He couldn't credibly ask to be in a better position right now, especially compared to where he was a few weeks ago. The bad news is, despite his gains, the former vice president may yet struggle to lock up a majority of pledged delegates ahead of the Democratic convention. What's more, Biden will have a target on his back, not only in the upcoming debates, but also as Republicans turn their fire on him.

For Bernie Sanders, the good news is he appears to have come out on top in Super Tuesday's biggest prize (the California primary); he's a close second in the overall delegate count; he still has all kinds of money in the bank; and several of next week's primaries are in states where the Vermont senator fared very well in 2016. The bad news is, Sanders appears to have lost his frontrunner title; he came up short in states where he was expected to excel; his turnout ambitions -- fundamental to his campaign's pitch -- keep faltering; and intra-party critics who said his support has a ceiling have new evidence to bolster their case.

For Elizabeth Warren, the good news is she picked up a couple dozen additional delegates yesterday, and if her plan involves a contested convention, that remains a distinct possibility. The bad news is, Warren came in third in her own home state; she still hasn't finished in the top two in any nominating contest; and there's little to suggest the senator will prevail in any primary going forward.

For Michael Bloomberg, the good news is he appears to have picked up about a dozen delegates yesterday. The bad news is, Bloomberg paid a breathtaking amount of money to win those delegates. The pressure on the former mayor to exit the race will likely be pretty intense.

For Tulsi Gabbard, the good news is she's now a top-five candidate who managed to win her first delegate yesterday. The bad news is, there are only five candidates, and the party's debate rules are likely to change in such a way that having one delegate won't be enough to qualify for the next debate.

The rollercoaster continues. Buckle up.